Long before he amassed directorial credits for everything from Reversal of Fortune (1990) to episodes of Mad Men, Barbet Schroeder made La vallée (The Valley, 1972), a drama about a young sophisticate beguiled by hippies seeking an uncharted South American valley, as the leader says, ‘obscured by clouds’. Unsurprisingly, this description’s allusion to vision’s limits – some things, though theoretically visible, remain unseen – influenced Pink Floyd’s choice of title for the soundtrack they recorded for Schroeder’s film. Dark Side of the Moon, its title likewise referencing the tantalizingly out-of-reach, appeared the same year. But why, 40 years on, would Derek Root title his exhibition of encaustic paintings ‘Obscured by Clouds’?
A clue: three paintings’ names reference tracks from Brian Eno’s More Music for Films (1983), while a fourth nods to Eno’s soundtrack to the documentary For All Mankind (1989). Together, the titles of the show and of these paintings place us at cinema‘s intersection with outré rock and roll’s most successful manifestations – a field frequented by Floyd (their four previous soundtracks included Michelangelo Antonioni’s 1970 film Zabriskie Point and Schroeder’s directorial debut More, from 1969) and other bands launched during the 1960s. But if these titles give our location, they don’t say why we’re there. For that, we need the paintings.
When looking towards something that clouds hide, we don’t see nothing. We see the clouds. However, in paintings like Measured Room and Enhancer (all works 2012), this distinction is murky. Like everything in this show, these identically sized modest works eschew encaustic’s typically heavy impasto for the opposite. Their calm, resolutely physical surfaces declare themselves as wax blocks, their thickness a feat of technical virtuosity that tempts one to touch it. (A few marks I saw on my second visit suggest not everyone resisted.) Yet the wax’s translucence and the pigment’s amorphous forms also generate undeniable depth, creating a tension between surface and space reminiscent of Morris Louis’s ‘Veil’ paintings from the late 1950s.
This effect comes closest to registering as nothing in Measured Room, which is monochromatic but for the faint modulation between shades of grey, slightly darker in the upper-right corner than in the lower left: marked enough to be the inside of a dense cloud; restrained enough to be a formalist exploration of the minimum colour variation needed for visual interest. A more active surface obtains in Enhancer, a delicate yet billowing yellow occupying its bottom third and floating up its sides. Again, though, readings of it as a latter-day colour-field painting and as a picture of light (sunrise? fog lamps?) breaking through cloud are equally plausible.
On the other hand, larger works like Sheet, Echoes and Street Name: Abyss seem to emphasize nothing’s difference from clouds by juxtaposing monochromatic white, grey and black with passages of the curling greys and whites familiar from the views from aeroplane windows. Yet, these monochromes can be representational if they portray thick cloud or dark sky, as can the pink of Stucco Colours and the red of Walk Past if they depict stage lights seen through machine-produced fog.
Not that ‘Obscured by Clouds’ was an exposition à clef, with Pink Floyd as the key. But that album (somewhat forgotten now, though it did exceedingly well at the time in France, the UK and the US) combined with the film references, Eno citations and colour-field syntax suggest a knowing indebtedness to the smartest, least restrained culture of four decades ago, more acid-fuelled Robert Smithson than buttoned-down Donald Judd. (These references also recall art’s link to rock in Root’s native Vancouver: Jeff Wall, Ian Wallace and Rodney Graham playing in the band UJ3RK5 during the late 1970s, for instance, or Graham’s 2002 paean to über-Floyd member Syd Barrett, Photokinetoscope.) Like the music they reference, these paintings luxuriate in perception’s unreliability, captured with their amorphous forms, deliberate lack of clarity(in both of that term’s meanings) and compelling suggestion that they – and we – are drifting.